Photo by Susan Sharpless Smith/Creative Commons

Columbus Upstream

Part One

We evolved with the waterways. The rivers raised us. We traveled along them as nomadic groups, drinking at the bank, feeding on fish and mussels living under its glassy ripples. We hunted animals that approached the water, and traveled along its surface faster than our feet could carry us. It began as a place to visit, and once humans settled in permanent encampments and homesteads, then became a way to get somewhere. Once the city started to grow, it became a vehicle to carry things away, out of sight. We dammed it up, altering its profile and barring its animals from prospective food and mates. We poisoned it from above, filling it with sewage and trash. Then, once we didn’t need it any more, we forgot about it.

The rivers that run through Columbus have quietly watched us grow in numbers and smelled the burning stacks of industry. They slept, invisible in plain sight, as the city was cobbled together along their sides. It lashed out at Franklinton in 1913, washing away the town and many of its people. The water barricaded back into submission and the city scarred, time flowed on. Block by city block, the streets were laid, and the houses were built. Horses brought materials on wagons, then were pushed farther out as the city made way for cars. We threaded pipes under its bed and harnessed its strength to power the city lights. Towers were built, the population boomed, and all the while the rivers slid quietly through.

But there were some who took notice. They spoke for the waters and turned the wheels of change. The rivers, like a lonely elderly neighbor, went almost unnoticed for years, until the situation became dire and bleak. A revolution has begun on the banks of the Scioto and Olentangy. With the low head dam removal projects at Fifth Avenue and Main Street complete and the Scioto Greenways project set to open this summer, the rivers that formed the capital city will become recognized and credited characters in the ensemble cast of this place we call home.

The future of the rivers has been rewritten once again, but this time the water had its advocates—and a voice. With the catalysts of the dam removal projects, much change has come to our fair city’s banks in the last few years, and there will be more to come.

The Ohio State University has deemed the section of the Olentangy that runs past its grounds a research corridor.

The downtown riverfront will become an emerald public parkway in the center of the city.

The water’s surface will soon be a public playground, available to all for recreation from Dodridge down to Greenlawn.

In a series a year in the making, (614) will examine the history and the future of the city’s rivers, mostly overlooked. Each of the next three months, we will publish a section on a different aspect of the rivers, and each of those months will focus on a storyline. This month, we will start with a look back at the history of the river and how it intertwines with our own. In the next two issues, we will meet the players in the river’s story. The activists who rallied to save it. The engineer who designed its face and footprint. The adventurers who are staking a claim on the water—all of them integral to the river’s progression.

It’s time we were properly reintroduced to the quiet powerhouses that lay just beyond our back steps.

Come on in, the water’s fine.

Chapter 1: RIVER city rebirth

The rivers were here long before we were, and the arms of the water we live above today have been reaching south for millennia, toward what would become the state line once white men decided that territories are things, and they need boundaries.

The Delaware people arrived around the same time as the European settlers, as they were pushed west from their ancestral homes. They settled near the twin rivers that ran through the forests, prairies, and wetlands that Central Ohio once was. The eastward, shale-rich river was known then as Keenhongsheconsepung, which means “stone for your knife stream.” The European settlers trickled in, following the river’s flow, and called it Whetstone. In 1833, after most of the indigenous people in the area had been moved south and west, the irony-blind Ohio General Assembly attempted to restore the Native American names to the rivers of the state. True to their “act now, research in retrospect” nature, the river was named Olentangy. This name meant “River of Red Face Paint” in the Delaware tongue. However, that title was actually used by the Delaware to describe what we now know as The Big Darby Creek. The bungled naming would set the tone for the next two centuries. The identity of the river—its name, its shape—continued to evolve as those who claimed to own it deemed it should be called this or redirected for that. At its heart, the rivers have remained as they were brought into this world—a force of Earth, the living circulatory system of our planet that vegetation and animals (human and otherwise) rely on for life.

The river provided a path as well, a safe passage to freedom for escaped slaves from the Southern states. Men and women seeking a new life in the North passed through Ohio by the thousands on the Underground Railroad. The horror and brutality of human captivity were reinforced by the fugitive slave acts of 1793 and 1850. The escaped slaves themselves were no longer home-free once they left their former prisons behind, and now the free blacks and whites who attempted to help them faced increasingly damning consequences for their righteous yet illegal actions. Though the known pathways of the Underground Railroad run through all the states surrounding Ohio, no place was more heavily traveled by freedom-seekers. They commonly followed the rivers upstream as they traveled by night through the wilderness. They headed north—toward Lake Erie, Canada, and freedom. It was common to plan an escape for winter when the rivers were frozen and could be crossed on foot. This often happened under the cover of night.

One must wonder how many pairs of hopeful and terrified feet, formerly bound, followed the southern Scioto and headed north at the confluence of the rivers, up the Olentangy. Right downtown, where the Arena District and Huntington Park now stand, countless men and women risked their lives to escape oppression. Many more would never complete the journey.

Time tumbled on, the laws of the nation evolved, and the rivers brought industry and commerce to the downtown area. Our modern ideals would allow the river freedom of movement, but loosing the reins on Mother Nature would’ve been a hard sell to the people of early-20th century Columbus. They were witness to the Industrial Revolution. The dream of controlling chaos with order was an optimistic fire, fueled by fear of disaster. The Great Flood of 1913 steeled this attitude. After heavy rains coupled with the spring thaw, the cold March Scioto crested at 21 feet, sweeping away most of Franklinton. The residents escaped rising waters by heading for the higher ground of the Hilltop area. The wooden floodwall was torn violently from the ground on the west side of the river, inundating the residential area with swift, freezing water. All of the bridges connecting the east and west sides of the city were torn away, cutting off rescue efforts and stranding masses of refugees. Fire fighters, police officers, and bystanders watched from the higher ground of the east bank as the neighborhood across the raging water drowned. Refugees escaped with the clothes on their backs; 93 people were killed and thousands of businesses and homes were destroyed. Entire buildings were toppled over, and some washed away down the river only to emerge miles downstream once the floodwaters passed. After the swells faded, Franklinton was desolate. The dark memories of the flood, as well as the process of rebuilding were never far from anyone’s mind. There was another flood in 1959, when the waters of the river rose above the existing wall once again. The city was scarred, but rallied behind the cry of triumph over nature. As rebuilding commenced, engineers took some of the first measures in flood prevention and watershed management that keep our heads above water today. The Franklinton floodwall was completed in 2004 and can hold back waters that rise over 30 feet, higher than the crest of any of the aforementioned floods—the city’s insurance plan against building and living on a flood plain.

The revitalization in Franklinton the last few years has been huge. The addition of the annual art and music festival Independents’ Day to the new Franklinton location will introduce Columbusonians from other parts of the city to the poorest neighborhood in our capital—a confluence of our past and future, destruction and renewal. The area is booming with new growth and hidden art. The studios at 400 West Rich Street are overflowing with color and creation. The conversion of an old warehouse to a creative commons has breathed life back into the floodplain. The floodwall, along with two low head dam removal projects and the soon-to-open Scioto Greenway will change the face of the river and the city along with it. Mayor Michael Coleman sees potential:

“The narrowing of the river will offer a significant boost to places like Franklinton,” he said. “When the river improves, that neighborhood will improve as well. As you know, Franklinton is one of the areas where I’ve stuck a staff in the ground and said, ‘We’re going to bring Franklinton back to be one of the coolest, most vibrant areas of the community.’ I think the change in the river is contributing to that.”

Indeed, the changes in the waterway have shaped our city through the centuries—for better or worse. The waters that flow through Columbus are living, breathing characters that live along side us day to day. They provide drinking water, kinetic energy for power production, transportation, research—and soon, recreation.

Monumental changes are coming to the river corridor, and they will be unveiled this summer. The city and the water are embarking on a new kind of partnership, and we are lucky to be along for the ride.


Part Two

A little fish swims just out of sight, its blue and orange colors blazing. A small creature, only 2 or 3 inches long, the rainbow darter is native to Ohio and surrounding areas. When the glaciers receded north at the end of the last ice age, they left behind cold, clean melt water, and that’s where the darter evolved. The tiny Technicolor beast displays his mating hues in the riffles of clean rivers. Sensitive to pollution and silt, their numbers began a steady decline as local rivers and tributaries became increasingly befouled.

Over the last few hundred years infrastructure and technology have evolved, and ideas of our relationship to the environment have changed along with them. The pioneering spirit of the U.S. informed our attitudes of man versus nature and encouraged domination of natural elements. The river soon became our neglected tool. Then, decades ago, something started to shift. A few individuals took notice of the growing damage to our landscapes, and the environmental movements of the 1970s earned hard-won victories. This conservationist mindset was the backbone of a principled fight between some concerned Columbus citizens and city planners. A team of activists provided a final push to change the shape of the river—and with it—the capital city.

Anyone who has lived in Columbus for long will attest to the monumental growth the city has experienced in the last few decades. And as any civil engineer can tell you, more people means more excrement. City residents in older neighborhoods may be familiar with the backed-up basements common to antique plumbing and overcrowded drainage systems. Thanks to outdated sewers that lagged behind the booming population of the city, Columbus found itself with a serious sewage overflow problem. We were, quite literally, full of shit.

Let’s rewind back to 2002, when the Central Ohio Sierra Club decided to take a stand for what was happening downstream. Pat Morida was chair of the club back then, and growing concerns over the health of the city’s rivers lead to investigations by scientists and naturalists alike.

“We discovered that the city was dumping billions—with a B—of gallons of raw, untreated sewage into the river at the point of the [Southerly] Wastewater Treatment Plant,” Morida said. “Part of our objection was that the city was extending its sewers as fast as it could, without restrictions, without adequate development standards, and without proper zoning. They were bringing in new sewage when they couldn’t treat the amount of sewage they already had. Columbus had 10 times the amount of overflows [as] other cities in the United States of comparable size.”

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Morida and her associates knew that pollution at these levels would poison the river ecosystem, and that action was required to see any real change from City Hall. On March 28, 2002, the Sierra Club sent a letter of intent to sue the City of Columbus for irresponsible waste management and wanton destruction of the river corridor. The city worked with the EPA to find an alternative to a court battle, and at the 11th hour, came away with an agreement to pay a $250,000 fine. The city was offered a choice: pay this money to the EPA, or use it toward environmental remediation as Columbus saw fit. The city decided that removing a series of low-head dams on the river provided the most benefit to the watershed area, as well as for the city at large. This was not a solution to the sewage overflow problem, but it was certainly a step in the right direction.

Low-head dams bump across the width of rivers to allow buried utility lines to cross water, or to gather hydroelectric power for utility needs. Many were built in centuries past to provide power for mills. The low walls raise the water level upstream. Immediately downstream, they create a forceful recirculating current, which can trap debris, boats, and even swimmers. The dams are impassable barriers for fish and other aquatic animals, which can’t leap over the structures or pass the dangerous undertow. A known risk to humans and wildlife, they are nicknamed “drowning machines,” and many thousands of dams across the U.S. have been destroyed in favor of a natural river profile.

After the court battle that never materialized, the city began an undertaking that lasted 13 years. Complying with the orders, the City of Columbus and the EPA began environmental studies around the Fifth Avenue dam area. They measured the Qualitative Habitat Evaluation Index (QHEI) of the Lower Olentangy Watershed. This analysis takes into account the safety of a river for swimming, drinking, and wildlife. The minimum goal for a healthy river is a score of 60 out of 100. The immediate dam footprint scored a 30.

Stantec, a consulting and engineering company with offices in Columbus that frequently partnered with FEMA and ODNR (the Ohio Department of Natural Resources), won the bid to redesign the river and complete a five-year environmental effects study after construction is completed.

The physical breakdown of the Fifth Avenue dam began when an initial notch was cut in 2012. Building a river corridor in an existing urban area—complete with a university, multiple highway and pedestrian bridges, and nearly 1 million people—was no easy feat. The engineers who designed the riverbed had to decide each foot of depth and the angle of the dips and curves for every bend in the Olentangy, all the way to the confluence and beyond. Bryon Ringley is a water resources engineer who took on the job of returning the river to its natural state while balancing the need for flood control and habitat restoration.

“A river is a living system, so it’s dynamic. You really want to give it room to move and change and adapt. If it’s got a good valley and corridor, you can do that. Especially out in rural areas. We don’t have that luxury in highly urban areas,” Ringley said. “We have to keep it within the bridges; we can’t let it dig a pool where there are buried utilities. What we try to do is still allow it to be dynamic but train the river. We put the riffles over areas where there are utility lines. We cut the pools and design their depth and placement. This is important for all the fish, and birds, and macroinvertebrates, and all the life in the river. You’ve got a riffle-run-pool-glide sequence [see next page]. You want all those facets in the right place to create the most natural habitat possible.”

This natural habitat, the riffles specifically, is what environmentalists hoped would draw the shy rainbow darter back from the brink, along with other flora and fauna. But the creatures of the river needed all the help they could get. Volunteers from Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed (FLOW) helped with a full-blown river rescue. Alice Waldhauer, chair of the Central Ohio Watershed Council and FLOW’s watershed coordinator, said that we are connecting fish populations in the Scioto and the Olentangy for the first time in 80 years.

“Right after they breached the dam, Stantec looked for volunteers to rescue the stranded mussels, because the water level dropped about eight feet,” Waldhauer said. “It was kind of like an Easter egg hunt. We walked around picking up freshwater mussels and throwing them in laundry baskets so they could be relocated. We found 7,500 mussels. We recorded the sex and species of each mussel and then relocated them. They can live up to a century. They’re kind of sentinels of water quality.”

The volunteers relocated the mollusks, leaving invasive zebra mussels on the banks to serve as a raccoon buffet. Though the invasive honeysuckle was picked and the zebra mussels left high and dry, there was one animal that wasn’t so easily dissuaded from joining the exodus to the healthy river. Ringley recounted the challenge.

“The Canada geese decimated everything,” he said. “The contractor had planted everything at least three times. Finally, the city hired the USDA to help with goose management. At the beginning, they tried all kinds of things. They would put out grids of wire to keep the geese from landing. They put out coyote decoys and pie tins to scare them. All of these things would work for like, a week, and then the geese would figure them out. The USDA got permits to use fireworks and fire blanks.”

The simple solution, the one that actually worked, was snow fencing. The wobbly orange plastic barrier is impassable for young and newly molted geese, which can’t fly. The goose-control measures will end this year when the plants have matured enough to recover after a good pecking. The implements will be taken down, and the fowl will surely return.

Engineers, designers, volunteers, and water-quality experts have collaborated on the removal and redesign of both the Fifth Avenue dam and the comparatively huge project of the Main Street dam downtown.

“The economic drive was much more important downtown—but from the beginning it started with the river,” Ringley said. “The health and habitat of the river itself came first, and everything else was secondary. The Scioto is much larger than the Olentangy. The riffles in the Scioto will be 4-feet deep or so; in the Olentangy, only 1 to 2 feet. Pool areas downtown will be 14- to 16-feet deep; only about 4-feet deep in the Olentangy. The Scioto watershed and contributing drainage area is much, much larger than the Olentangy. After removal of the Main Street dam is complete, the river will flow freely from Dodridge to Greenlawn.”

As the river heals and regrows, plants will populate the banks, securing the walls of the river corridor. The animal populations along the water will adapt to the changing habitat. Waldhauer recounted the swell of pride she experienced upon hearing about a sighting of a rainbow darter in the river. The slowed, mucky Olentangy of the past would’ve provided no real habitat or breeding grounds for the creature. Upon its discovery, a threshold had been passed. The darter is FLOW’s mascot, and its reappearance in the river stands as a beacon for the changes occurring beneath the surface.

The darter’s domain will soon be shared by a procession of Columbus residents making their acquaintance with a body of water that has been sliding past our city for centuries. As we learn to get back in to touch with the water, literally, our relationship with our environment will continue to grow and change. The shape and image of Columbus will evolve, as the plants and animals of the river have for millions of years before us. And as the river itself has, at an accelerated rate, right before our eyes. 


Part Three

The future looks bright for Columbus’s rivers in the year 2015. With the completion of the Fifth Avenue and Main Street dam removal projects (discussed in the previous installment of this series), a whole new world is opening up for residents. For the first time in a century, recreation on the rivers’ surfaces is not only possible, it’s encouraged.

“We have a great waterway that runs right through the heart of our city. I think it’s changing—people are realizing what we have,” said Lisa Daris, the owner and operator of Olentangy Paddle. In May 2014, her company became the first urban kayak and canoe livery and expedition business in the capital city. She owes her startup not only to her own hard work, but to the changing perception of the rivers.

“I have friends that recently moved to places like Colorado because of what Colorado’s natural resources offer. As a city, we’ve got to find ways to compete with that,” she said. “We have to highlight what we have, instead of hiding this river and shrouding it over the last few decades like we’ve done. Starting with the early-1900s, we put these measures into place. We built dams to try to control nature, but gradually we found out that we can’t. We’ll be spending the next 100 years undoing that.”

Luckily for Daris and anyone interested in the ecological and economic health of the rivers, it has taken only 13 years to get them restored to their current, more natural profile, the physical work actually taking place in just the past three. The project is now in the final phase of riverbank restoration and is scheduled to reach completion in November.

Daris sees potential in river access in the near future: “What’s gonna be great is being able to paddle down to the confluence for brunch, pull your kayak up, and walk up. I see people utilizing the river, pulling up in a canoe or kayak to COSI, Bicentennial Park, going down to WaterFire. We’re hoping to get people using and experiencing the natural resources again.”

The newly opened corridor could mean a new niche for entrepreneurs and adventurers alike. But as the saying goes, you have to spend money to make money. Bryon Ringley is the head engineer for the dam removal projects, and he helped break down the cost of the river’s facelift and reconstructive surgery.

“There will be opportunities for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people to gather.”

“You’ve got projects where you do river restoration and dam removal in rural areas where you don’t have to do much,” he said. “You can do that for several hundred-thousand dollars. Then you have a project like this where you’ve done a little bit more.” At the time of the interview in summer of 2014, the Fifth Avenue dam removal project on the Olentangy River had cost about $7 million. The more ambitious Main Street dam removal and the related Scioto Greenways project aims to create 33 acres of green space Downtown and install multiuse trails, lighting, and other amenities. “The price tag on that project is $35.5 million,” Ringley continued. “So you can see the range of costs for projects like these.”

Many vested parties bankrolled the river revamp. The City of Columbus had to pay penalties related to a series of EPA violations resulting from a sewage overflow problem and the dumping of raw sewage from the Southerly Wastewater Treatment Plant. The Ohio EPA helped to foot the bill, and Ohio State shared a large portion of the cost as well. OSU wanted the river corridor flowing through its campus to be inviting and prominently visible to students and passersby in the area near the university and the medical center. The school is embracing the river corridor and using the area as a living laboratory to help students learn about the ecology of the river.

Mayor Michael Coleman has helped usher in the rivers’ new era, and though the cost of the river restoration is considerable on any scale, he remains optimistic about its worth. He champions the cause for reasons beyond commerce.

“It’s not so much about the economic return as it is the quality of life in our city. It’s hard to put a dollar-and-cent value on increased quality of life. It will change the city for generations. It’s an incredible project,” he said in an interview last summer. “It ranks up there with the pyramids. You don’t have to go to Egypt, you can just come to Columbus and see our emerald greenway. The great cities of the world will be the cities that do innovative things. Innovation attracts people. Innovation attracts recognition.”

When asked about the catalyst for the changes, however, the sewage overflow issues and the subsequent lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club in 2002 were notably absent from the mayor’s response: “Essentially, the catalyst is that I want to make our city be a great city, and we’ll have a clean river and clean water.” Though he and others like the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation don’t want to connect the EPA-stipulated remediation in the Olentangy watershed with the Scioto’s Downtown restoration, the wellbeing of the river upstream is inextricable from its condition downstream, like any moving body of water. The two are connected, for better or worse.

Once the rivers are finally flowing healthy and free, opportunities for residents will present themselves in new and unexpected ways.

Domenic Buccilla and L. Michael Bain founded Hero USA in 2009. A Columbus native, Buccilla wishes to enhance the quality of life for disadvantaged youth through outdoor sports education. Fee-based programs for families that can afford them help to fund the nonprofit’s mission of providing free water sports courses for kids who may never have the opportunity to enjoy the river otherwise. The organization’s long-term goals are to bridge the gap between suburban and inner-city children and to break down social and economic barriers. Hero USA’s water sports activities are increasing as the river grows more inviting to locals.

“Our goal is to make sure the people we take on the water are learning the safe practices necessary for participation in these sports, as well as learn how to respect our waterways, parks, and the private land along the rivers,” Buccilla said. “This is what will ensure that generations to come can enjoy these waterways as I did with my grandfather.”

Mayor Coleman also has big, big plans for Columbus’s urban waterways moving forward. He described an emerald corridor throughout the heart of the community. He spoke of visions of families boating, fishing, and picnicking. “This will be a place we can recreate. There will be opportunities for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people to gather,” he said. “Over the years there has been pressure to develop the banks of the river for commercial use, and I have fought that. I want the river to be reserved for public use.”

“It will be a jewel of our community.”

That jewel is finally being cut into shape. Soon, our opportunities on the river will grow. New businesses will open, and with them will come jobs. The Scioto Greenway will bring a new public venue to the capital city. The Olentangy and Scioto watersheds will continue to transform, as they have since the turn of the last century, at the hands of man and his steaming machines. The rivers have been rerouted to braid together the urban and the wild. The new riverbed will keep the floodplains safe, as well as protecting the ecosystem we have only recently come to appreciate. Along the water’s surface, the people of Columbus will soon glide under the highway bridges, moving by the high water marks of the river’s past as it carries them forward into the future. 

Photos by Megan Leigh Barnard

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